Beautiful. Warm. Resourceful. My first visit to rural India.

No American visiting India for the first time really knows what to expect. The India that one visualises from the descriptions of travel websites, friends, and relatives is one of stark contrasts between clean and polluted, modernity and tradition, rich and poor.

So, before I came to India, I didn’t know what to expect. My name is Ajay and I am an Indian-American high school student on his first visit to India. On this trip, I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to join the Akshara Foundation on visits to the villages of Mundargi and Kushtagi in north Karnataka.

The rides to the villages were long and bumpy on roads that varied in levels of maintenance. For much of the ride, I had my left hand firmly grasped around the ceiling handles of our SUV and my eyes glued to the window, seeing life in a rural area for the first time.

The countryside can be very beautiful. Agricultural fields cover the sandy landscape with green crops and bright yellow carpets of sunflowers. These fields seem to stretch forever, only briefly interrupted by the villages they sustain.
Sunflowers
The villages have their own beauty, with the vivid colours painted on the walls of homes and local shops. Buildings are constructed into small, but pleasant and reliable, structures from the materials readily available, such as wood and mud brick, showing the resourcefulness of these poor communities.

The members of these communities were warm and welcoming to us, opening their home to us in an instant. I’ve never been a big tea or coffee drinker – I’m fairly energetic on my own, without caffeine but by the end of the two days I was in rural Karnataka, I was converted.

Everywhere we went, either tea or coffee was generously offered (and how can you pass up South Indian coffee?). The beverages not only literally warmed my mouth (I think I actually burned my tongue on the first day – helpful tip: when drinking a hot liquid, don’t keep it in your mouth in hopes of it somehow cooling down), but also, metaphorically, my heart; despite their daily struggle for food and water, these villagers offered me tea/coffee and biscuits without hesitation.
Tea
However, these same villagers, the parents of the children we visited in local schools, did not seem to understand the full importance of their children’s education. During their house visits, Akshara conferences with the parents about the importance of education and convinces families of why they should be involved in their children’s education.
VIllage
When basic necessities are scarce, it is understandable that parents can find it difficult to prioritise homework over harvesting. But a good education is a necessity. Certainly not of the immediacy of food or clean water for basic survival, but education is a necessary investment we make today to ensure that these children do not have to worry about things, like food shortages, in the future.

In the United States, parents are, unfortunately, also often distanced from their children’s education. Some parents work too much to be able to find time to monitor their child’s learning. Others simply can’t be bothered. Either way, the effects on the child’s education are the same: the parents’ lack of involvement is an impediment.

While in both America and India, parental involvement is generally directly correlated to income level, the difference is that in America, the trade off is rarely – if ever – between survival and education. Americans, in general, have more than enough to survive.

The young students in Mundargi and Kushtagi dream of becoming teachers, doctors, engineers – not farmers or labourers that struggle to get by. This is why it is important not only for the students to have an education available to them in school, but also for the parents to support their children’s quest to build a better life for themselves and, eventually, the villages they come from.

And this is why Akshara’s work is so essential. By building relationships with the communities in which they work, Akshara is able to make meaningful change at the deepest, most fundamental, levels. They invest time and effort into providing an education to children today, and changing attitudes and mindsets to ensure the next generation will have an education tomorrow.

– Ajay Dayal

Summer Camps in Kushtagi


Akshara strongly believes that, “Strengthening the community is a long term endeavour”. People of the community become more empowered and responsible to work together to uplift and sustain the quality of education. Thus, Akshara initiated thirteen educational camps in the community for the children of 9 to 14 years in the Kustagi block in the month of May-2013.

Preparation for the camps:
The senior team members from Bangalore trained the team of Kustagi and Mundargi in Dharwad for four days in order to prepare for the summer camps in their particular clusters.
The summer camp training laid special emphasis on
The objectives of the camp.
Stake holders for the Community camps.
The target to conduct the Community camps in Hoskote, Kustagi and Mundargi.
Time line.
Core team for implementing each camp.
A plan to conduct the community camps

Mr. Mukund Maigur held the training on ‘Street Play’. He made everyone the poets, writers, actors and pioneers of the story. The team members found this means to be an effective media to reach out the minds of people concerning the relevance of education.

The Volunteers:
The mixed group of volunteers were identified for this camp. A fruit seller, a mason, a carpenter, members of Gram panchayat, II PUC passed students, Graduates, D.Ed and B.Ed completed candidates were the volunteers who led the camps.

 The Donors:
The team visited the community from door to door, met the SDMC members, the HMs, the teachers and the leaders of the village, explained them about the objectives of the camp and sought the donors to support the camps for three days.

Volunteer Training

Training the sixty selected volunteers:
Even though there was a lot of hesitation among the volunteers in the beginning of the sessions, gradually they all involved themselves in the training, every one participated in all the activities. The group activities, Lego, the tree game and the street play were particularly liked by all.
A session led by Mr.Shankar Narayan for four hours, his motivational speech and several activities made them think about the present status of education in their villages and they were stimulated to take up the new task in the form of village camps.

Camps:
In Kustagi block 13 camps were conducted in different villages. The locations were selected based on the cooperation of the schools, the communities, the SDMC and the availability of the volunteers. Sixty trained and enthusiastic volunteers returned to their places in zeal to conduct the events in their respective villages.

Inaugural function:
The camps began with the procession in the village. The children, the teachers, villagers and the volunteers lead the procession to the camp venue. The inaugural function was held in the schools. The Gram Panchayat Presidents and members, the SDMC President and the members, local leaders, the Self Help Group members, youth club, Cluster Resource Persons (CRP) the school Head Master, the assistant teachers, the media people, cooks of the school and volunteers were present during the function.

Activities in the camps held for three days:
The children were divided into four – five groups. They were instructed to be in their particular groups for all the three days. In the first session, they were made to dance, jump, sing and make jokes to attract them towards the camp. In some of the camps the guest lectures, the doctors, the lawyers, the engineers, the educationists and the Police inspector interacted with the children and inspired them to have an insight about their future.
“Memory Game” was an interesting game for the children. Every one participated in an enthusiastic manner.
The “Village Map” drawn by the volunteers involving the children show cased the picture about the irregular children, drop outs from the school, the educators of the village. This helped to know the present scenario of their village.
The children enjoyed the “Lego Game”. They all jumped with joy to see the Lego kit. They made different models, created a scene and narrated the story. They never wished to leave the camp even though the time was up.
“ASER” test was conducted to all the 727 children of the camp.
“Pick and speak” was an interesting event for all the children. It raised the self confidence in them. This made the children to think, prioritize, exhibit their thoughts and ideas with expressions before the audience.
The ‘Musical Chair’ game, the ‘Outdoor’ games, ‘Indoor’ games, ’Quiz’ in ‘English and Math’ and ‘General  Knowledge’ created healthy competition among the children.
A “Tree Game” was liked by all the children. After the tree game the children took an oath to plant a tree and name it. In Sebinakatti, Kalkeri and Bilagi villages the plants were distributed to all the children by the forest officer.

Community meetings:
In every village, a social gathering was held after 8 PM it went on till 11.30 PM. The parents of the children participating in the camp, the village leaders, youth, the SHG members, the Gram Panchayat members, SDMC members all gathered during this meeting. On the ‘First’ day, the cultural activities by the children were well appreciated. Akshara team members briefed about the purpose of the camp and the significance of education in today’s juncture.

The points mentioned below were highlighted during the meeting.
Monthly parents meetings to be held in schools.
The parents should spend minimum of 30 minutes with their children every day and ask about the learning in their class rooms.
The parents to meet the class teachers every month compulsory.
To conduct a ‘Makkal Sammelana’ once every six months.

On Day 2, the children drew everyone’s attention with their cultural activities again. The volunteers, Akshara team in collaboration with the children performed the street play beautifully. The play was effective in spreading awareness in the minds of the village folk through children.The children expressed their views about the camp. The information collected through the village map was shared with the parents. The results of the ASER test were announced in the community. Mr.Sharanappa Vodagera a famous folk singer, entertained the people with his awareness songs called “Jagruti Geethegalu” concerning the education of the emerging generation.

The annual plan for the academic year was shared with the community and is as follows:
To visit the school once in a month.
To conduct meetings with the educationists.
To provide basic facilities to the school.
To identify the problems in the schools and to provide solutions.
To give more emphasis on appointing teachers to schools.
To look for teachers from the village who can render their services voluntarily.
To help provide books to the children in time.
To recognize the meritorious children and to motivate them as well as the other students.

On Day-3, during the valedictory function the community members and the donors were also present. The prizes were distributed for all the events which were conducted for the children. The dignitaries on the dias delviered their speeches. A word of  thanks to all the people involved in the success of the camps and finally, the oath taking by the volunteers and the people of the community to carry on the same for the next summer camp was the sequence of the day.

About the camps:
The ‘Three Day Camp’ was as good as a festival in the village for the all the people. All the community people gathered in one place without any differences of cast and creed. They all agreed upon the idea of education and its importance. They were cooperated well with the Akshara team. The CRPs, HMs and the community people opined that, a educational programme of this type had never been held before in their villages. The programme went on till 11.30PM. The parents were glad to see their their kids performing various events. Over all they viewed the hidden talents of their children in the community programme.


ASER Result:
727 children benefitted from this camp. All the children were tested with the ASER tool. As per the ASER result of 727 children, 408 (56%) can read Kannada, 86 (12%) can read simple English sentences and 206 (28%) children can do division.

Support of the volunteers:

The support of the volunteers was amazing. There are no words to express about them. ‘Fifty five’ of the had attended the training but more than ‘Eighty’ of them joined their hands during the camps leaving behind all their personal work. They helped and enjoyed in the camps without any expectations. The logistic arrangements for Akshara team was taken care by the volunteers. The volunteers said that it was a first educational function in their village and they will take it forward in the days to come.

A volunteer named Anand, a seventeen year old boy, passed his 10th standard with 70% in the year 2012-13, from the Government High School and is now studying in the first year of Pre-University College. He starts his day by distributing news papers from door to door.  His father is an alcoholic and mother supports the family. His parents discouraged him from continuing studies due to the poverty. But, Anand wants to become an ‘Artist’. Therefore he earns money for himself and also continues his studies. He was an active volunteer in the Basavana camp, Tavergera. He donated tea and snacks on all the three days of the camp. “I am ready to invest my time and money for any educational programs. Akshara Foundation gave me an opportunity to be the part of educational program and I totally support their effort”,says, Anand.

Mr.Raghvendra from Kalkeri village has completed his D.Ed says through assuring words, that, “I had heard about the summer camps happening in the towns and the cities, but now it has stepped into the interiors of the village through Akshara Foundation. It is a gift for us. We the youth will continue this tradition”.

The support from the school HMs and the CRPs:
The Head Masters of the schools rendered their support. Some of the HMs stayed till the community meetings got over. A tasty food was prepared by the cooks to the children. In some of the villages the cooks of the schools donated tea and biscuits to all the children.

Donors:
In most of the camps, SDMC President and the Gram Panchayat President were the major donors. Some of them provided breakfast,sweets, tea, snacks, note books, pens, and prizes for the events for all the children

Experience of the Cluster Facilitators:
“It was a wonderful experience to know about myself. I learnt to organize events, gained the confidence and faced people and the media. I felt very happy when I addressed nearly 200 people” says Mr.Govindappa.
Mr.Manjunath gladly says:“Before the camp I was like a tube light but after the camps I have become like a CLF bulb”I have taken up the challenge to give my service the best to schools and community”
Ms.Shailaja says, “I came to know about my strengths and the talents through this camp”.
“Initially, I was not confident about myself but now, I feel that, everything is possible if there is a will”. Explains Mr.Kotresh.
Mr.Shivappa adds, “I was suffering from inferiority complex but these camps have helped me overcome my problem”.
Mrs.Akkamahadevi asserts: “I had the confidence to do any program. But I was worried about how to take this with the support of community and volunteers. I succeeded.”
Mr.Sharanappa shares, “I am impressed by the volunteers. They gave their time without any expectations for the cause of education. So everything is possible if we go with good will”.
Mr.Doddangowda confidently says, “I learnt to organize the events with the support of the community. I was an introvert but now,I feel that I am not”.
“I have gained a lot of knowledge by interacting with the children”. Says a newly joined CF, Mr.Shankarappa.
Today, I feel proud to say that, I am a block facilitator of Kustagi block for Akshara foundation. The camps have thrown the light on the block and many officers, the teachers and the people recognize me” opines, Mr.Umesh Meli the ‘Taluka Facilitator’.

Learning:
It was a firsthand experience and learning to have an exposure through the camps in the community.
The education department officers, teachers, children, the community and the media had a positive view about the camps.
Akshara foundation has shown and sown the way in the community to continue the camps in the days to come.
The team has built up the confidence to take up any challenges on the field.

Challenges faced:
It was a tough task to identify the volunteers in the community. Some said ‘yes’ but did not turn up for the training.
Elections were a hurdle to get the camps started in time.
Some donors assured to donate for the camp but were unable to do so.
Internal conflicts between the SDMC and HM was also an obstacle.
‘Marriages’ and Gram ‘Habbas’ in the villages also intervened the camps.
Basic facilities for the Akshara team was another challenge.


Conclusion:
Akshara Foundation’s team in Kushtagi, with many experiences was able to successfully conduct thirteen educational camps. Through these camps, we brought a smile on 727 children’s faces. The village map, tree game, ASER, street play, Drawing and Quiz competitions, Lego, Outdoor and Indoor games, Action songs and many other activities have retained in the young minds of the children. The cultural activities performed by the children and the youth, Rangoli competitions for the women in the village were interesting to note. All this showed the enthusiasm of the people. The support of the volunteers, school HM, CRPs, people of the community has doubled the confidence of all the CFs. The regular support of Mr.Shankara Narayan, the stay in the village, his interaction with the people and the motivational speech had people impressed.

Though beginners, Akshara Foundation has made a mark and has created history in all the thirteen villages of  the Kushtagi block.

LEGO Habba 2012 : A big success !!



A Big Success
 
The LEGO Habba, happening every Saturday from October 2012 to December 2012 in selected government schools in Bangalore, concluded recently. The event had been been conceived with the aim of having Parents, Teachers and Children engage in a creative LEGO brick activity in school. This was good way to ensure that Parents and School Staff build a good relationship to ensure that they jointly do the best for the child.

From schools in Siddhapura, Austin Town and Harappanahalli, reports streamed into Akshara from the library resource team about the festive atmosphere the Habbas were generating, the light, happy mood of children, their buoyant creativity and the quite unbelievable models they designed, the parental participation and the support of volunteers and school managements in making the Habbas a huge success.

Groups of children made thematic models from stories that came out of their memory trove, stories they could best represent through art, design and construction, with the hundreds upon hundreds of bright, multi-colored, interlocking LEGO play-and-learning material before them. Children joined and fixed and connected the LEGO bricks, set elaborate stages for the characters that would live in their stories, the trees and animals that would inhabit them and built towers and forts and simple dwellings.

The Stories They Chose

 
At the school in Austin Town the children of Std. I, II and III chose The Thirsty Crow from the Panchatantra for their model.
For Std. IV children it was The King and the Parrot, again from the Panchatantra,  its characters a bit more complex.
Soleman from the cartoon serial was a more tricky concept to represent, but that is what Std. V children chose to depict.
Std. VI children came up with The Golden Axe, a well-remembered story of theirs, and had a forest ready for the tale of the honest woodcutter who was gifted the golden axe by the river god.
The children of Std. VII did something unique. They devised their own story, made animals their protagonists, assigned each a role and character and had them play out their parts in sequences. Their story was almost similar to The Royal Toothache published by Pratham Books.

“We Loved the Event”

Thirty five parents showed up at the Siddhapura school and though they were all shy and disengaged in the beginning, not knowing what to expect, Akshara staff and Fidelity Information Systems (FIS) volunteers thawed the ice and brought about a great artistic commingling.
One parent remarked that no one has ever invited them to come and play with their children in school before, referring to the library resource team’s ingenious invitations that went out to them from the school managements’ side. “We loved the event,” the parent said. “It helped us to get to know our children better and also helped us interact with teachers for a reason that was different from academic results.”
Cluster Resource Person (CRP) Govindappa said, “It was a very well-organized event. Looking at the LEGO play material I was half tempted to join the children (which I did too) and play with them. I was surprised by the presence of parents and that they stayed on for such a long time. They were not willing to get back home. I thank the Akshara Foundation team, all the volunteers and school staff for such a fabulous event.”

Pride in Achievement


It was all over in one short hour, the flying sparks and the bursts of ideas translating into solid substance, and the children stood under the marquees with their models, full of pride and achievement and ownership, surrounded by an appreciative and applauding crowd of parents, HMs, teachers, volunteers, School Development and Monitoring Committee (SDMC) members and Akshara staff. They spoke enthusiastically about what they had so spontaneously created, their stories, their models, and how they went about it.



Over 130 volunteers from various organizations like FIS, Robert Bosch, CGI, Hibu, iGate and schools like Inventure Academy organized the habba at 16 schools over Saturdays. Thanks to their high enthusiasm and passion, the habba was a great success !!

As Sharath from Hibu, who had volunteered for the Habba at the Harappanahalli school, noted, “This was an amazing event. I am very excited by the creativity and the talent shown by government school children. My team has volunteered for some events with children before, but the sense of satisfaction and entertainment this event gave us is immense. I wish to participate more frequently in Akshara Foundation events in future.”

The last habbas

The last two LEGO Habbas were conducted at the Community Education Resource Centre (CERC), or community library, at two Bridge Schools run by Samruddhi Foundation. It is an Akshara – supported CERC, run with donor contributions from ING Vysya Foundation. Around 160 children from a local rag-pickers’ colony attend the community library and the team had introduced them to LEGO’s learning and creative opportunities early in the academic year.

Watch the Habba in action

Here’s a wonderful video created by Inventure Academy on the habba. The video tells you the story of the habba and how the children, parents, teachers of GKHPS Handenahalli and the students of Inventure Academy participated in it as a single community.

LEGO Habba begins with a bang..

The LEGO Habba kick-started with a bang on Saturday, 3rd November 2012. The first set of schools to participate were GKHPS Siddapura, GKHPS Handenahalli and GKHPS T.C. Halli.  Around 300 children, 80 parents and 32 volunteers participated in these schools. While employees from Fidelity Information Services organized the Habba in Siddapura, children from Inventure Academy ran the show in Handenahalli and T.C. Halli. The theme revolving around the Habba was “The Land of Stories” and each class had to come up with a model depicting a story using LEGO blocks.


Come Saturday morning and all the locations wore a festive look. Shamiyana, music, colorful festoons created the perfect atmosphere for the Habba to begin. The event started off with a brief welcome to the children, parents, teachers, SDMC members, volunteers and department officials. Soon, teams were formed with each team consisting of a volunteer, teacher and an Akshara librarian. Each such team would coordinate the Habba in each class. It took a while for volunteers and teachers to gently persuade parents to tell stories to their children.  Soon we saw the whole group interacting well with each other to decide on the story and started building different components of the selected stories using LEGO blocks. In a lot of instances, it was so heartwarming to see parents and their children guiding each other and joining hands to build models together.

After 70 minutes, the outcome was  astonishing and satisfying. In front of us, there were highly creative models. Beautiful LEGO models told us stories of ‘Simha Mathu Mola’, ‘Mangoose kills the snake’, ‘Monkey and the Crocodile’, ‘Punyakoti’, ‘Onake Obavva’ and many more..

The models were then displayed and one could see parents beaming with pride. One parent told us that so far, no one had invited them to the school to play. This event helped them to know their child better as they were unaware of their child’s talent. For once, they could interact well with teachers for  a reason other than academics.


The Cluster Resource Person from the Education department Mr. Govindappa, who participated in Siddapura said,”It was a very well organized event. By looking at the LEGO bricks, I was half-tempted to join the children (which I did too) and play with them. And I was surprised with the presence of Parents for such a long period. They are not willing to get back home. So, I thank Akshara Foundation team, and all the Volunteers and School Staff for such a fabulous event.”

The event concluded with the distribution of gifts and snacks to all children. Each school was also gifted with a LEGO box.

Overall, the Habba, as the name suggests was like a Habba in the School, and was powerful enough to pull along parents, teachers, children and volunteers to come together to celebrate creativity !! We hope, this Habba is a gateway for better involvement of the parents in their child’s education and will initiative the demand for quality education in the future.

Arvind Venkatadri, Head of Akshara’s library program, participated in the Habba in the GKHPS Handenahalli. Below Arvind shares his joyous experiences of the Habba.

” I reached Handenahalli at 9:10 AM, well in advance of the start time of the Habba, planned for 1130. I was immediately impressed by the level of preparation by the HM, Shri Bhaskar and his staff: a very colorful shamiyana was already up, the LEGO Habba banner was flapping in the breeze over the main gate of the school and the HM’s voice could he heard testing their PA system! The ground was spruce and clean and very soon I spotted Akshara’s Librarians, all smartly dressed for the occasion: Deepa, who works from this school and her colleagues Renuka, Pushpa, BhagyaJyothi, Lakshmi, Manjula and Pankaja from other schools in Anekal Block. 

The SDMC members arrived and so did teachers from the neighbouring schools, Bikkanahalli, Sollepura and Kotaganahalli; I recognized and was greeted by Shri Lakshmipathi of Bikkanahalli.  For this Habba, we were expecting a whole bunch of volunteers from the Inventure Academy, an International School located near Dommasandra. Lavanya Vimala, a teacher at Inventure, called me to tell me they were on the way and soon enough the Inventure bus came rolling to the gate of the school. They were greeted by Shri Bhaskar and welcomed to the Habba. There were some students of Inventure and some parents as well, who were curious to see what this Lego Habba was all about. One of them, Anjana, started a very detailed shooting of the entire event, complete with interviews of participants. By that time a good few parents had also gathered, some grandparents too and were engaged in charming conversations with the Librarians. 

We quickly briefed them as to the plan; Prabha from Inventure agreed to be the compere and took charge at once. She kicked off the Habba by welcoming the assembled parents and the staff members of the neighbouring schools and the SDMC members. She gave a lovely introduction to the Theme of the Habba, “The Land of Stories”. Everybody was excited with the prospect of making Lego models to show off their stories. The children came streaming out of the classes to take their parents there; the teachers quickly took charge, along with atleast one volunteer from the Inventure group. Soon there were keen discussions in many of the classrooms: Children telling ” ajji” to decide on a good story and in some cases, children telling stories to the adults and exhorting them to adopt these as their story for the Habba. The volunteers helped create some wonderful talk: Prabha was very effervescent, as were many of of the other teachers. The Inventure Children sprang their own surprise: they had brought charts and banners of their own, handmade, which they decked up in the classrooms and also on the central stage in the courtyard. 


The stories were decided upon fairly quickly: the Thirsty Crow, the Rabbit and the Lion, from the Panchatantra and The Village Fair, a popular story in our Libraries. People decided upon how to build the stories: what creatures to make and what the surroundings were like and of course, deciding on the main event to depict. The Akshara Librarians then brought in the buckets full of Lego and upturned them on the floor. The surprise and utter delight on the childrens’ faces was a joy to behold, and they cheered as they dug in to get hold of the pieces they needed. The volunteers helped some of the shy adults to come out of their shells and make the models; the Inventure students thoroughly mixed with the children here and helped create some intricate models.                                                       

Soon it was time to bring out the Story Models and display them on the stage. Librarian Manjula had drawn up areas on the stage where each class would arrange its Story Model. 

They were astonishing, the models. The Lion was a sheer delight, with mane and tail, as was the reflection of the lion in the water inside the well. The trees in the forest had been made with a lot of care, and foliage looked very real. The Crow looked very good too, cocky and street-smart. The Village Fair was full of detailed pieces: a merry-go-round, dancers, shops, games, even a mobile tower near the village. Prabha invited children from each class to present their story; each story was cheered by the closely pressed group. Parents delighted in the attention their wards were getting; I also met parents from the nearby anganawadi who had come in to find out what was going on.

Finally, it was time to wind up the show. Prabha made the children cheer when she announced that there were gifts for everyone. The children quickly lined up in a crocodile as they streamed towards the gate. Akshara Librarians smilingly handed out goodies and snacks to each child, from both Schools. Some tiny tots from the anganawadi came up timidly asked for the biscuits too and gleefully accepted the gifts.

It was deeply satisfying. The Children, the Parents,the Teachers and the Volunteers: it was just perfect. I think we will see similar efforts being made by th Govt School teachers themselves at other places, on their own. That will surely make the future Open School Days in Govt Schools a very different and noisy affair !! “